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Will Curtis Lazar get better? Looking at historical comparables

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An exercise to help you refine your expectations about the Sens 2013 1st round pick.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Curtis Lazar showed some frustration with himself and the fanbase in an article by the Citizen’s Ken Warren. Speaking about his development thus far, Lazar noted:

“It’s going to happen,” he said. “The armchair GMs and all the people who think they know hockey just look at the numbers, but not many of them have seen prospects develop in front of their eyes.”

Then, when asked about his poor point totals:

“In some ways, I’m kind of doing that minor-league (development) stuff here,” he said. “If I put up 25 goals, 30 goals when I’m 27 or 28, what are people going to say then?”

Nichols responded with a great piece, which I highly recommend reading before you continue below. In it, he went through Lazar’s success in juniors and with the Canadian WJC team, while commenting on fan (and media) expectations on Lazar. It also included this tidbit on Lazar’s current performance — and it’s not pretty:

The fun thing about numbers is that they’re just a method that humanity has contrived to record our observations of the world. Because they’re numerical — and perhaps not-human in a way — they’re often met with great skepticism. Funnily enough, there IS a way that we can use numbers to visualize processes like a hockey player’s development, and one way to do that is to look at historical comparables. Basically, there have been players in Lazar’s position before: who are they, where are they know, and what can this tell us about Lazar’s future performance?

The first set of players that I looked at were forwards who were 21-22, putting up a points-per-game total <= 0.25, in their third NHL year, between the 2005-06 and 2016-17 seasons. The full list (hyperlink above) has 48 players, but since Lazar has appeared in at least a quarter of the team’s games this season, I’ve limited the sample to the 26 who have done the same in their respective seasons. This introduces some limitations, which I’ll touch on below, but gives us an indication that the team’s management believed that the player was NHL ready and/or had poor NHL depth. Ultimately, I think this gives us the subset of players who are closest to Lazar in every developmental aspect - age, position, NHL experience, and current production.

We see a collection of former first round picks like Zemgus Girgensons, Alexander Burmistrov, Emerson Etem, Brett Connolly, and Gilbert Brule. We also see a bunch of role players, like Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cedric Pacquette, Markus Granlund, Patrick Kaleta, Zack Smith (!), Colton Gilles, Jamie McGinn, James Sheppard, Justin Abdelkader, and Brad Richardson. The verdict is still out on some of these players, but if you were hoping that Lazar would transform into a top-six forward, this list is worrying. A majority of these players are now playing outside of the NHL or are providing replacement-level value for their current teams. There is some good news though: 11 of these 26 players went on to have multiple NHL seasons above 0.25 PPG, although just 2 (Abdelkader and Sobotka) had seasons just above 0.50 PPG.

Player NHL Seasons above 0.25 PPG AHL Where are they now?
Player NHL Seasons above 0.25 PPG AHL Where are they now?
Zemgus Girgensons 2 - 2013/14, 2014/15 17 pts, 61 games BUF; RFA
Casey Cizikas 2 - 2015/16, 2016/17 66 pts, 83 games 5Y, $3.35M w/ NYI
Markus Granlund 2 - 2014/15, 2016/17 72 pts, 85 games 2Y, $900K w/ VAN
Vladimir Sobotka 4 - 2010/11 - 2013/14 74 pts, 68 games KHL
Gilbert Brule 2 - 2009/10, 2011/12 64 pts, 93 games KHL
Zack Smith 5 - assorted 103 pts, 171 games OTT; UFA
Justin Abdelkader 5 - 2011/12 - 2015/16 76 pts, 109 games 7Y, $4.25M w/ DET
Jamie McGinn 6 - 2011/12 - 2016/17 75 pts 116 games 3Y, $3.33M w/ ARZ
James Sheppard 2 - 2013/14, 2014/15 24 pts, 40 games NLA - Switzerland
Brad Richardson 6 - assorted 61 pts, 73 games 3Y, $2M w/ ARZ
Jason Zucker 3 - 2014/15 - 2016/17 63 pts, 77 games 2Y, $4M w/ MIN
Stats from EliteProspects & CapFriendly

There is a limitation with this data: Hockey-Reference’s excellent play index tool, which was used to gather these players, counts even one NHL game as “a season” — thus, our requirement of trying to find players in their third NHL year, like Lazar, warps our findings. Also, when you include the initial list of 48 players who met all of the requirements but played under a quarter of their third season in the NHL, you find more “failures”, with only Brett Connolly and Brandon Pirri added to our >0.25 PPG list above.

The most worrying finding in terms of the data’s relevance to Lazar, though, is the fact that all of the players above, with the exception of James Sheppard, played at least 60 AHL games, with many playing a season and a half. Moreover, they all performed exceptionally well, with AHL PPG’s above 0.50 in all cases except one (Girgensons) and many closer to the PPG mark.

I then decided to pull a second set of comparables with different filters. This time, I looked for players who played at least 82 NHL games between the ages of 18 - 22, performing similarly to Lazar in terms of PPG (<=0.25).

The future of this grouping of 32 players is a bit more dismal, with 9 of them surpassing the 0.25 PPG mark. Sobotka, McGinn, Cizikas, Brule, and Sheppard are repeats from the first list; Brett Connolly appears again. They’re joined by Nick Spaling (2 seasons - now in Switzerland), Zack Kassian (2 seasons - Oilers), and Cal Clutterbuck (2 seasons - NYI). We also get a list of players who are almost identical to Lazar right now: Jared McCann, Scott Laughton, Tom Wilson, Andrew Copp, and Dimitrij Jaskin. Interestingly, McCann and Laughton are spending this season in the AHL while Wilson, Copp, and Jaskin are currently struggling (under 10 points) in the NHL.

In sum, I hope this exercise pointed out a couple of things:

  1. We found a couple of ‘fair’ historical comparables for Curtis Lazar. It’s easy to point out the stars amongst the 63 current 21-22 year olds playing in the NHL this season and feel bitter towards Lazar’s lack of production, but controlling for NHL experience and points gives us better examples for us to base our expectations on. Girgensons, McCann, Laughton, Wilson, Copp, and Jaskin were all high NHL draft picks, and a reasonable set of peers to follow from here on out.
  2. The development process is tricky and like Lazar noted at the start of the piece, there are a ton of variables that we can’t control for. That being said, we are able to use numbers to look back at players who were in similar situation as Lazar — Cizikas, Brule, etc. — and see how they tangibly performed in the future. In our most ideal comparison, 42% (11/26) of players like Lazar went on to produce multiple seasons of point-per-game performances between 0.25 - 0.50 and were useful, mainly third line, NHL players. When the sample expands, this number gets lower and lower.
  3. Lazar is an RFA at the end of the year, and the Sens have to make a decision on him going forward. There are depth spots available, but if Lazar’s value is higher than the ~mid-round pick that most of the players above would’ve fetched, there’s a decent argument to trade him despite his young age. Jamie McGinn and Brad Richardson — two of the players in Lazar’s ‘ideal’ set — were signed to reasonably cheap deals in the offseason.

There’s a chance Lazar could pan out to be a good player. I hope you now have a better idea of what that looks like, and how likely that is.